Saving Cities With Popo TV
Police-Shooting Video Needs Overnight Production
By Wes Denham
There’s a cop shooting, and the decedent is non-white.
When this happens, most police chiefs hunker down behind closed doors and fumble frenzied calls from mayors, governors and reporters.
The response to these shootings begins within hours. It is so predictable that it appears scripted, which in part, it is:
1. Private jets carrying attorneys from Florida firms that specialize in unlawful death claims (I encountered these guys when writing about Travon Martin) take off.
2. In their Tallahassee and Orlando offices, attorney staff work the phones to secure contracts to represent the families. PR flacks gather emailed and texted photos of the deceased. In these photos, the decedant is well-dressed and -groomed. He or she is at high school graduation, in church, at childrens’ birthdays, or at Christmas. Copywriters fill in the blanks of a pre-scripted narrative: “(Insert name) loving father/mother, dutiful son/daughter, was killed by racist police…”
3. The media are tipped that the attorneys will be landing shortly. New conferences will be held on the tarmac, at the courthouse, or at the scene of the crime if the blood hasn’t been washed up.
4. Onlooker video, cut, cropped, enhanced or tricked out by clever kids, starts bing-bonging across the Internet.
5. Meretricious media deceptively edit official video that is leaked, and amateur vids that are offered, and in some cases, paid for. If media can’t find video fast enough, plaintiff attorneys will leak it later from discovery.
6. Community organizers round up banners, placards, Black Lives Matter flags and crowds.
7. The crazies come out, invited or not, with gasoline, fireworks, trash can lids and truncheons.
8. In cities that are unfortunate, BLM/Antifa march out suited, booted and ready to rumble.
9. In cities that are unlucky, right-wing wackjobs sling on the ARs, shove extra mags and knives into tac vests and charge into the scrum.
10. In cities that are doomed, cops, who have insufficient riot gear and who are prohibited from using tear gas, pepper balls and armored personnel carriers, struggle among the combatants.
11. Smarmy politicians grab microphones and hog camera angles to proclaim solidarity with whomever they need to solidify. Celebrities express outrage from the comfy moral high grounds of Instagram and Twitter.
12. There can be humor in crisis. Now and then, onlooker video will capture people, with nary a cop in view, falling to the ground and shouting “I can’t breathe” in hopes of a slice of the money judgments to come.
13. The denouement is drearily familiar: Cops are arrested, chiefs fired, and stores are burned and looted. With cops cowed, local hoodlums settle scores with turf, dope, and love rivals by putting bullets into heads and brains on the ground.
14. Panicked politicians vote huge payouts to plaintiffs, usually without going to trial. After the plaintiffs attorneys’ jets touch down in the Sunshine State, it’s champagne all around while partners await the electronic transfer.
The only palliative—prevention is currently impossible—is official video from dash-, badge-, helmet- and gunsight cameras. These have to come from all personnel on scene and be augmented by onlooker video and security camera footage.
Cop video has to be unedited. No tricks. No namby-pamby blurring of faces. No muting the gunfire, screams, weeping and death rattles. It is what it is.
If the killing was lawful, the video can save lives and property that would surely be lost in ensuing mayhem. If the killing was unlawful, so be it. Better to make the arrrests and take the lumps at once.
To be effective, cop shooting video needs the following:
1. A spokesperson, usually the chief or the public information officer, who explains what happened.
2. A map or Google earth view that shows where it happened, with red lines and arrows as necessary.
3. A video-capture still image, usually within a red circle, that shows any weapon the suspect brandished or discharged at police or victim.
4. If the shooting occurred during radio car response, the 911 calls, with closed captions and translations of foreign languages, must be included. People have to hear fellow citizens calling for help.
5. A high-resolution photo of firearms carried by the suspect. A description of ammo loads, caliber and firearm type, is de rigeur. Ditto photos of knives, machetes, daggers, bats, pipes, saps and knucks. Ditto-ditto photos of unconsumed narcotics and the paraphernalia therefor.
6. Video and photos of cops’ injuries, and if killed, their corpses. This is grotesque but necessary.
7. A printed graphic listing the number of times the police commanded the suspect to get down, put hands up, exit the vehicle, drop the weapon and so forth.
8. An explanation of any mitigating or de-escalation tactics used.
9. A report, if applicable, of the suspect’s mental illness and prior admissions to locked psych wards. If relevant, medical explanations of suspect’s prescriptions for neuroleptic drugs that can induce murderous rages are important.
10. The suspect’s rap sheet.
11. A notation of illegal drugs in the suspect’s system from a quick, swizzle stick test of sweat, saliva or blood. This has never been done, but should be. The coroner’s tox report, which shows actual blood levels and the lethality thereof, is useful but comes too late for the initial release of video. Too few people understand the horrifying mixtures of narcotics and hallucinogens in the blood and brains of people shot by police.
12. A non-technical explanation by a prosecuting attorney of applicable law and court decisions concerning fleeing felon, police use of force and self-defense.
13. A presentation by a senior commander of relevant departmental training and standing orders.
14. Once edited, this video report needs to be disseminated at once to the public via social media and the departmental website. If the city is burning and people are dying, the department should send links to the video via Wireless Emergency Alert to every cellphone within the metro area. This is the only way to reach people who do not read or watch news. If The Feds complain, a humble apology can be delivered to the nation’s capital in due course, in writing, by mail.
This type of video looks complicated, but many departments have mastered it. The Los Angeles PD have the shooting video down pat. Their productions are as slick as a naughty movie star’s non-disclosure agreement. They are also truthful, respectful, and legally and tactically fascinating.
The problem is how to produce these fast. Of the hundreds of police shooting videos I have watched, only one was released within twelve hours. This was nearly ruined politically by footage of administrators fatuously congratulating themselves on their timeliness.
Other hindrances to rapid release are legal and bureaucratic. The Florida State attorney in my city has decreed that cops may release no video for 30 days. By then bodies from the riots will already be buried and the grave dirt settled and sodded. In North Carolina, legislators have mandated that police video can only be released pursuant to a court order. (Try getting any judge to hear anything after 4:59 pm. Monday–Friday. Forget weekends, holidays and full moons when the bass are bedding.)
To surmount bureaucratic and legislative obtuseness, a leak of the official video might be in order. The hack can be blamed on the usual suspects—Russians, Chinese, Moldovans, Mossad, Iranians, Trump, etc. A later news conference on the prolixities of binary code, security protocols, firewall back doors, cloud computing and data-packet diversion will glaze the eyes of all and sundry.
Technically, police-shooting videos can be done quickly enough to avert or mitigate urban destruction. Emergency production needs to be practiced like a police raid, which in a sense, it is.
Many departments employ photographers, videographers, editors, graphic artists and writers. (My city’s department has a TV studio, photo studio, radio booth, Internet production and even a cable channel.) Staffers sit before huge screens driven by computers powerful enough to calculate the orbital trajectories of the next moon shot. Just like cops, these technicians have to be staffed with redundancy to be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, no excuses. Unannounced drills, especially in the wee hours, are crucial, as is practice, practice, practice.
Anything less is lethal.
Wes Denham spent years as a criminal defense investigator and Spanish translator in Florida and Georgia jails and prisons. He is the author of Arrested, a consumer guide to criminal defense, and Arrest-Proof Yourself, a guide to avoiding unnecessary arrest. He is a graduate of Princeton University.